Boiled in Lead

Dateline: 07/24/98

Boiled in Lead recently celebrated 15 years of World Fusion music with the release of the retrospective ALLOY, a retrospective featuring many new mixes and previously-unreleased live versions. Drew Miller, the band's bassist and owner of Omnium, the band's record label, recently spoke to me about all of the changes in the band over the years and how they have affected the music; ihow they integrate their many musical styles and maintain their hard-edged sound; and current and future projects.

Consider this a treat for the many die-hard fans of BiL ("leadheads," as they affectionately call themselves), and an excellent introduction to the uninitiated.
Paula: In light of all of the personnel changes, how does the band find ways to re-interpret older material?

Drew: The biggest change of all was when Adam replaced Todd as lead singer. But we handled it (as we handle most things) treating each song individually, and playing to each musicians' strengths. We didn't want the band to be the same as it was before.

For example, "Newry Highwayman" we had done with Todd...Adam liked the song, and we were able to make the arrangement even heavier than the previous version. "Madman Mora Blues" now has a couple different arrangements we can use depending on whether we're playing acoustic or electric.

BiL is unlike most bands in that, with only a few exceptions, we can play the same material acoustically (doumbek, acoustic guitar, fiddle, bass) as we do electrically (drum kit, electric guitar [turned up to 11], bass [also turned up to 11], and fiddle [wah-wah, effects, etc]). This really keeps things fresh; adjusting the parts we play to the gig situation. Besides, playing quiet gigs is really good for the music, without noise and effects boxes to fall back on.

Paula: After listening to all of your albums, I hear a sort of evolution in your sound, from folky and acoustic with many world influences, to more electric, less of a folk edge per se, but still with a heavy influence from other cultures. What do you attribute to the evolution of your sound? Where do you go from here in terms of sound and style?

Drew: That's not quite correct. From the start, BiL thought of itself as a rock band that just happened to play Irish traditional music. I wouldn't call our use of chainsaw on the Irish chestnut "The Gypsy Rover" (from Hotheads, 1985) very folky...we gave that song the beating it richly deserved, since it's such a hackneyed standard of the Irish pub circuit. The albums in general have been a bit tamer than the band when we play live.

When Robin Anders joined the band in 1986, replacing original drummer Mitch Griffin, we had two new aspects we could add to our sound: 1) play acoustically, since Robin had already developed his doumbek style, and 2) start to branch off to other world music cultures besides Irish, since Robin was experienced in playing the odd time signatures of Middle Eastern and Balkan music on the drum kit. That's the material that's the most fun for me to play; straightahead 4/4 is kind of boring. It's more challenging to take the odd meters we learned from Balkan music and rock them. We've also applied those meters to our originals, as in the chorus to "Blackened Page" on Gypsy.

Through the 80s, original songs made their way into the repertiore gradually; it's difficult to write songs that will stand up with all the great traditional ballads the band does. When Adam joined in 1993, we broadened the mix to include more of our own compositions, as on "Antler Dance"...and Gypsy is almost completely original material from Adam Stemple and Steven Brust (though Gypsy was conceived from the start as a side project).

What happens next? There are some pointers in that direction on both volumes of ALLOY -- the song "Black Crows" for example is a good one of Adam & Steve's songs. Playing with David Stenshoel again recently in Minneapolis has given us a good opportunity to dust off some tunes that had been out of the repretoire since he left the band, such as the South African tune "Sobabamba" on ALLOY2. The current incarnation of the band is more improvisatory than any other; David is a marvelous player, and a great listener, as is Adam. The two of them have very interesting musical conversations!

Paula: Where would you like to tour, where you have not yet toured? What artists would you like to tour with, if possible?

Drew: There's not likely to be extensive touring in the band's future. Of course, if we get a good offer, we'll show up and play just about anywhere! But there are so many bands on the road now that it's much more difficult to make an impact with a club tour than, say, 8-10 years ago. Most bands lose money on the road. People have to make a living wage from playing music, and we don't have big money backing us.

We prefer playing festivals, such as Winnipeg Folk Festival, or the many festivals in Europe. In that context, you get to meet (and play with) some stellar musicians, like when Eugene Chadbourne sat in with us in 1991 ("State Trooper" on ALLOY2), or when we did Robin's Arabic suite "Nasrudin" with 20 additional percussionists. That was scary, but very fun. We like to be out on the edge, musically, trying different ways to play the tunes.

Paula: As a band, you seem very much based in Minneapolis, but you have a huge cult following, literally all over North America and beyond. What do you attribute to your appeal? What are your goals in this respect -- do you want to reach a broader audience or have you achieved what you set out to do?

Drew: I feel a good sense of accomplishment these days, having marked the band's 15th anniversary by releasing 3 CDs worth of material from the vaults, including a bunch of tunes we recorded live only 6 months ago. I had a great time going through the tapes, and found a lot of items that I had completely forgotten about.

Through all the changes, BiL is still one of the few bands who can take traditional material and REALLY make it rock. Most folk-rock bands simply splice a rhythm section together with a couple of instrumentalists. But very few bands mix things up enough so that you can't see the individual parts.

We've never been willing to be confined to the folk-rock ghetto, or walled in by having to stick to any particular label. We play acoustic AND electric, instrumental AND vocal, straightahead rock'n'roll AND odd time signatures, beautiful melodies AND horrific noises. From the reviews ALLOY has been getting, more people are catching up to what we've been doing all along.

To be honest, I don't really know what's going to happen next with BiL. But then again, there's never been a master plan with this band; it's mostly been about having fun with music we love.

Paula: What projects are you working on at the moment, either as a band or solo?

Drew: Adam's big project is the birth of his first child in July. He also runs his own label, Fabulous Records, which has released a CD by the Tim Malloys, a group on the local Irish scene. He's also working on a solo album.

Robin has a new release Omayio forthcoming from Candessence, a new Rykodisc imprint. He's also been doing a lot of traveling, from Mexico to Morocco to the Far East.

David has been battling cancer for the past 6 months; but he seems to be winning!

And I have a dream job, running three record labels which release all sorts of music that I truly enjoy, from the experimental sounds of The Residents on ESD, to the amazing tunes and musicians from Scandinavia on NorthSide, and the music on Omnium, my own label, where I get to work with other bands that have a similar vision to BiL. I get to do a lot of graphics work, as I design and produce all our CD packages. Since January 1997, we've put out 32 CDs on all 3 labels combined! It's all great music.

After Adam's baby is born, we'll probably do an acoustic Minneapolis show in the fall, and also play a standing gig we have in Mexico. And then it'll be St. Patrick's Day again!

Graphics used with permission of Omnium Recordings.

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